07 Apr

Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture (1977)

The Feminization of American Culture examines how American religion transformed in the nineteenth-century from New England Calvinism to Protestant sentimentalism. Douglas argues that American religion was feminized by sentimentalism. This feminization was detrimental to American culture because it did not aid in the progress of America or promote feminism.


Douglas traces the emergence of sentimental Protestantism to the decline of Calvinism and disestablishment. Ministers experienced disestablishment as states stopped supporting official religions. Evangelicalism rose to popularity and supported less-well trained and less theologically focused clergy. Calvinist ministers experienced a decline in their social, economic, and religious statuses. At the same time, women experienced disestablishment as production and labor were increasingly moved from the home to the marketplace. Women lost control of their homes, families, and American culture. They experiences a loss of social status. They attempted “to gain power through the exploitation of the feminine identity as the society defined it” (8). Ministers in turn gave into this female audience to gain support and authority.

The printing press united these ministers and women in their efforts to gain power. They shared a “preoccupation with the lighter productions of the press; they wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs, sermons, and magazines pieces” (8). Through the press ministers and women wished to exert their influence, which they claimed as a religious force, on society. But this influence was haphazard, according to Douglas, because they “confused theology with religiosity, religiosity with literature, and literature with self-justification” (9). Douglas admits that their intentions were not bad: “Under the sanctions of sentimentalism, lady and clergyman were able to cross the cruel lines laid down by sexual stereotyping in ways that were clearly historically important and undoubtedly personally fulfilling” (10). Nevertheless, the effects were bad. “Nineteenth-century American women were oppressed, and damaged; inevitably the influence they exerted in turn on society was not altogether beneficial” (11).

The influence of sentimentalism and feminization were detrimental to American culture, religion, and history. According to Douglas, “The tragedy of nineteenth-century northeastern society is not the demise of Calvinist patriarchal structures, but rather the failure of a viable, sexually diversified culture to replace them” (13). Sentimentalism also created a feminine form of religion that was not concerned with feminism, education, or theology. “’Feminization’ inevitably guaranteed, not simply the loss of the fines values contained in Calvinism, but the continuation of male hegemony in different guises” (13).  It also created a static holding pattern. “The triumph of the ‘feminizing,’ sentimental forces that would generate mass culture redefined and perhaps limited the possibilities for change in American society” (13). The feminization of American culture was too sentimental, too emotional, non-theological, anti-intellectual, and anti-feminist. Douglas could not overcome her infatuation with male dominated forms of Calvinism to give women a chance to speak in nineteenth-century American culture.


The Feminization of American Culture, despite some historians’ continued criticisms, remains central to the narrative of religion in American history. This narrative continues to perpetuate the feminization of American religion. To be sure, most historians do not accept the negative aspect of this feminization. However, they do still accept Douglas’s idea that feminization of American religion segregated men and women into separate spheres. Douglas argued that women were “by and large in the home…” Historians, like Colleen McDannell, have worked to rescue the private, or domestic, sphere from Douglas’s indictments of its failures and hypocrisies. McDannell argues that the private sphere wielded positive and considerable influence in the nineteenth-century on the family through material displays of religion.

Douglas’s argument continues to impact how scholars of women’s history narrate the emergence of feminism in America. Douglas suggested that Sarah J. Hale was a complacent, anti-feminist:

“Nothing is more distressing to the feminist historian than the atmosphere of flushtide self-congratualtion that pervades the work of a woman like Sarah Hale; it is understandable, but nonetheless painful that, to groups whose potentialities are largely suppressed, any enlarged exercise of faculty seems, and probably is, at least in the short range an almost unmitigated good, whenever inner conflicts it creates, whatever limitations or long-term consequences it carries. It is pointless to condemn the anticipatory complacency of women like Hale as to condescend to members of ethnic or racial minority groups who ‘waste’ their money today on big cars and fancy clothes. The self-conscious if devious sense of social mobility felt by Hale and others was natural, yet it was delusive. Inevitably the uneasy alliance of ministers and women depended on their mutual entanglement in intricate and unperceived forms of dishonesty.”

Douglas threw Hale and other Christian feminists, like Catherin Beecher, under the bus. Their work did not matter. It was dishonest and it was not progressive. Their work was not feminist work. Nina Baym tried to rescue Hale from Douglas’s attack. In “Onward Christian Women,” Baym argues that Hale was a Christian feminist who supported women’s rights and women’s history in Christian terms. Nevertheless, historians continue to read Hale, Beecher, and other nineteenth-century women who supported similar notions as backwards, complacent, anti-feminists. Douglas’s work, although it promoted feminism, has greatly harmed women’s history in America. Historians are slowly recuperating from Douglas’s attacks on nineteenth-century women and their work for women and women’s rights.

Despite Douglas’s attack on nineteenth-century women, her work is important for women’s history. Douglas recognized that women were a prime consumer audience and prime produces in nineteenth-century America. Douglas suggested that most women were “By and large in the home.” But, Douglas did not separate women completely into the private, domestic sphere. Women were produces of American print culture. In fact, women led the clergy into the popular press. While Douglas condemned the content of these women’s writings, her insights are significant. Woman wrote for and shaped nineteenth-century print culture. Women were integral to the “public sphere.” Historians have not taken Douglas’s insights to their logical conclusion: women controlled American culture through print. Douglas also suggests that women controlled the marketplace as consumers. “In certain ways, middle-class women were freed as well as enfeebled by the shift in their economic status; they were to have greater, if more questionable, powers as consumers than that had enjoyed as producers [in the home]…they were women advocating the womanly, even if in aggressive ways…the home could sanction rather than limit traditionally undomestic activities” (78). Douglas recognizes the links between gender, the home, and the marketplace like no other historian has.

Douglas’s work is also important because it recognizes the importance of women in death and mourning in nineteenth-century America. However, like the women and ministers who support these practices, death and mourning were insincere forms of sentimentalism and feminization. Douglas argues that ministers and women “inflated the importance of dying and the dead by every possible means” (201). Like women’s other endeavors, these were negative. The proliferation of literature about death and dying did not reflect any increase in actual deaths. Neither did it reflect Americans’ concerns about death and the afterlife. Rather, it reflected women and ministers’ power struggles. “If the insignificant [the dead] could be proved to be significant, if the dead could live, ministers and women could establish a new balance of power in the free-for-all, intensely competitive democracy of American culture” (202). Women and minister feminized death and mourning to gain power in American culture.

The Feminization of American Culture is important for what is can tell us about women in American religion and history. Women were producers and consumers in the home and burgeoning marketplace. This comes out most clearly in the epilogue: “The forces of feminization were significant enough—they had tapped the increasingly formidable processes of industrialization, commercialization, and mass culture deeply enough—so that any opposition, even waged by a Harvard graduate like T.R., had to be conducted on their own terms” (328). Women were the arbiters of religion, culture, and the marketplace. Historians have not taken these claims seriously as they have examined women’s history in America. Ironically enough, Douglas’s work may help historians recognize the importance of women in American history. It may help scholars overcome their dependence on the separate spheres.

31 Mar

William E. McLellin, Journal (July to November 1831)

William E. McLellin is known for his conversion to the Church of Christ in 1831. McLellin became an Elder in the Church and was an original member of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Quorum was made of men who were considered apostles, or thought to have a special calling as evangelists. McLellin is also known for his excommunication from the Church by Joseph Smith in 1838. McLellin spoke out against the Church after his excommunication, but rejoined after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

McLellin was born in 1806 in Tennessee. He married Cynthia Ann in 1829. Cynthia Ann died before July 1831 when McLellin lived in Paris, Illinois and worked as a teacher. From July to November 1831 McLellin kept a journal of his interactions with the two travelling preachers, his baptism into the Church of Christ, and his early evangelism. McLellin’s journal is an important source for historians of American religion. It reminds scholars that in the nineteenth-century the Church of Christ appealed to many Americans. It was entertaining, a part of the evangelical print culture, and represented Christian truth. The movement looked like other Christian movements in the 1830s and emphasized similar ideas and theologies. It was also new and mysterious to many others. In any case, the new Christian movement attracted many Americans including McLellin.


McLellin first heard about the Church of Christ when he was teaching school in Paris, Illinois. Two men came to town and advertised an afternoon meeting in a local town where they would preach. The men said they were travelling to Zion ,”which they said was in upper Missouri.” They also had a book with them called the Book of Mormon, which they claimed was revelation from God. After school one day, McLellin set out “Anxious to see and hear those quear [sic] beings.” The two men preached outdoors in a sugartree grove. They talked about signs of the time, explained why they believed in the Book as a revelation, and “expanded the Gospel the plainest” McLellin “ever heard” in his life. One of the men described having “seen an Holy Angel who made known the record to him.” McLellin pondered “these strange things” in his heart and invited the men to preach in Paris. He also travelled with them to another town to listen to their testimonies and to talk to them more about their religion. McLellin “was induced to believe something about their mission.” The two men invited McLellin to travel with them to Jackson County, Missouri where he could meet other members, and Joseph Smith, a Prophet and the translator of the Book. McLellin accepted the invitation and travelled West.

McLellin’s journal catalogues his journey to Independence, Missouri. He stayed some nights and ate meals with his friends and family who he told about the travelling preachers and the Book of Mormon. Other days and nights he spent with the two men and attended meetings where they preached. One day he took them to the graves of his dead wife, Cynthia Ann, and their infant. Before departing with the two men again, McLellin bought the last Book of Mormon they carried with them. Other nights he stayed in towns. In all cases, he usually paid for his and his horse’s room and board. McLellin also bought a pocket Bible for 75 cents one day. At one of his stops he sold his copy of the Book of Mormon to a lady who boarded him. Two Elders had visited the town and preached, but they ran out of copies of their book to sell. The women convinced McLellin to sell his copy to her.

When McLellin arrived in Independence, he talked with the local people to see what they thought about the traveling preachers. The villagers called them “Mormonites.” They said the Mormonites were honest, but “much deluded by Smith and others.” McLellin met with the Mormonites and saw peace, love, harmony, and humility among them. They engaged in family prayer and talked about the Second Coming, and the rise and progress of their church. They gave testimonies about their conversion experiences. McLellin rose early the next day and prayed to God. He recorded in his journal, “I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the Lord—The Living Church of Christ.” McLellin was baptized into the Church by immersion in a river and laying on of hands. Nevertheless, like many evangelicals, McLellin had doubts after his baptism. He attended a “sacrament meeting” where there was plain preaching and witnessing by men and women of the works of god. McLellin, however, was disappointed by the lack of shouting, screaming, jumping, and shaking of members at the meeting. Nevertheless, he felt happy and “saw more beauty in Christianity now than I ever had seen before.” A few days later, McLellin was ordained as an Elder in the Church of Christ and was called to preach the Gospel himself.

McLellin travelled with other Elders and preached at meetings. He had not been trained to preach, but God gave him an animated and burning heart. McLellin, like the other Elders, preached for hours on end. At two different meetings, Methodist ministers challenged McLellin and the other Elders. One Methodist accused them of teaching “a supernatural Religion.” Other Christian preachers accused them of being false prophets. McLellin continued to preach with the other Elders. They preached about the literal Second Coming of Jesus in Zion in Missouri, and encouraged people to prepare and gather in Zion. They also continued to sell the Book of Mormon. McLellin eventually returned home to Paris after his preaching circuit.

26 Mar

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)

Nathan O. Hatch examines the cultural and religious history of the early American republic between 1780 and 1830. The Democratization of American Christianity is a history of popular religious movements– including the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons–and their popular leadership. Hatch argues that “the theme of democratization is essential to understanding the development of American Christianity,” (3). The Second Great Awakening “sprang from a populist upsurge rather than from changing mores of established parishes….The heart of the movement was a revolution in communications, preaching, print, and song” (226). The Second Great Awakening was not a force of unifying revivalism. It delineated social conflicts among clergy and laymen that emerged from the social conflicts of the American Revolution.


Hatch traces the “fault lines” of democratization to the American Revolution, “the most crucial event in American history” (3). According to Hatch, “The Revolution and the beliefs flowing from it created a cultural ferment over the meaning of freedom. Turmoil swirled around crucial issues of authority, organization, and leadership” (6). This political and social turmoil incited struggles for religious authority among educated clergy and ordinary men. These struggles were also fueled by agrarian unrest that “was tightly linked to a vein of radical religious protest” (31). Common-folk preachers emerged from this crisis of authority who promoted mixtures of high and popular culture, expressed varied opinions, and exalted youth, free expression, and religious ecstasy. These ministers preached against established denominations, supported individuals’ interpretation of scripture, and deferred to the supernatural. These ministers formed five popular religious movements that exemplify the democratization of Christianity: the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons. These movements highlighted the crisis in authority in popularity culture and expressed a “democratic spirit” in three respects. First, they denied leadership to the learned and elite, and approved the use of vernacular in word and print. Second, they empowered ordinary people by encouraging the recognition of the supernatural in everyday life. Third, they gave ordinary people the right to think and act for themselves, even in theology, as exemplified in development of a popular religious print culture.

Despite these democratic notions, “religious demagogues” emerged as leaders of these movements who quested for a new religious order. Among these popular movements, restoration movements, including the Adventists and Millerites, gained influence. These latter movements were made possible by “the sharp blows of the democratic revolutions in severing taproots of orthodoxy [Calvinism, the Reformed tradition] and the disconcerting reality of intense religious pluralism in the early 1800s” (169).  By the mid-nineteenth century, “the early republic’s populist religious movements were undergoing a metamorphosis from alienation to influence” (193). The denominational landscape of America was transformed by the nation’s democratic upheavals in three ways. 1) Leaders of the popular religious movements brought change to the established churches (Finney promoted Methodist revival techniques among Presbyterians); 2) The preachers of these movements sought respectability, gentility, and legitimation; 3) The trend toward formalization and respectability brought a new wave of “religious firebrands” (195). Popular religion in America rested on the paradoxical relationship of democratic leadership: common-folk preachers fitted the Gospel to ordinary Americans while they also re-inscribed order, tradition, and authority. It also rested on the “pervasive quality of dissent” in America. The democratic spirit influenced American Christianity to such an extent that “popular culture in the early republic became manifestly Christian” (209).


The Democratization of American Christianity was a response to the void in the 1980s on the religious history of the early American Republic. Hatch suggested that this void emerged because of three trends in scholarship. 1) Historians treated the early American republic as a bookend to either the American Revolution or the Jacksonian era. Thus, the era was deemed insignificant in itself. 2) Historians did not question the ubiquitous linking of the Great Awakening with the Revolution. They traced America’s root and future identity to the revivals of the eighteenth-century. 3) Scholars continued to produce historical narratives that favored elite churches and clergy.

This book urges scholars to move beyond studying American Christianity from the perspective of elite theologians. This method of study obscures transformations and power struggles in religious leadership that emerged during this time and continued to shape American Christianity. Hatch’s method looks to ordinary men who challenged denominational authority and structure, and, in doing so, “rose to leadership positions” in popular religious movements. Hatch shows that religious debates in the early American republic were not merely clashes over theological and intellectual differences, but also social struggles over power and authority.

Hatch suggests that “historians failed to appreciate the influence of popular religion in a culture shifting from classical republican values to those of a vulgar democracy and entrepreneurial individualism” for three reasons. 1) Historians from the 1950s to 1980s downplayed the social impact of the Revolution. They assumed the Revolution was about defending “home rule,” not about social conflict. And, in the same vein, they assumed that the Second Great Awakening was about deepening religious piety, not about social and religious turmoil. Revivalism, for these historians, becomes the unifying force that drove American Christianity. According to Hatch, “Revivalism as a principle agent of change has obscured the achievements of flesh-and-blood leaders and the dramatic strategies to forge new movements. It has also blurred the vastly different social functions the revival could assume for proponents as diverse as Lyman Beecher and Francis Asbury” (222). Moreover, the Second Great Awakening had been interpreted “as an attempt by traditional religious elites to impose social order upon a disordered and secularized society.” Neither of these interpretations allowed for the power struggles experienced between the clergy and laymen, between institutions and new movements.

Hatch’s insights about social conflict and historical categories are invaluable. Yet, scholars may need to rethink Hatch’s notion that democratization stemmed from the Revolution. In recent years, scholars, like Linda K. Kerber (Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America) have moved away from seeing the Revolution as the most influential event in American history. They suggest that the Revolution was revolutionary in terms of ideas, not necessarily in terms of social conflict and action. The social statuses of enslaved Africans, women, and poor white males remained the same after the Revolution. The impact of the Revolution was not the event itself, but the ideas and social change that it fostered in the early American Republic. The early American Republic, not the Revolution called for social change. Democratization was an effect of social stagnation, not necessarily social change. People were not happy with the results of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Hatch’s insights about the Second Great Awakening remain significant for the study of American religion. The historical category of “the Second Great Awakening” obscures actual historical developments and the people involved.

Historians have also failed to interpret the influence of popular religion because 2) “church historians from the more popular denominations have had reasons to sanitize their histories” (223). Hatch suggests that some historian have focused on aspects of their own religious heritage “linked to cultural enrichment, institutional cohesion, and intellectual respectability” (223). These scholars presented histories of these movements as markers of civilization and progress. They ignore notions that churches and movements can act as forces of liberation and control. These historians also present Protestantism as a single, unified entity with a commitment to “the church.” Hatch warns that this presentation of unity obscures evidence and makes it “virtually impossible for church historians…to admit that God’s ultimate plans could entail the splintering of churches” (223). Church historians also presented the Second Great Awakening as a unifying force of evangelicalism in the face of secularism. Thus, American Christianity is always at odds with American culture.

Popular religious movements remained unexplored because of 3) the emphasis on class conflict, labor, and capitalism. “This neglect stems both from the neo-Marxist preoccupation with the formation of social classes and from the assumption that religion is generally a conservative and pernicious force” (224). Recent studies have incorporated Hatch’s criticism by incorporating the study of American religion with capitalism, the marketplace, and secularism. Studies also abound that trace evangelicals’ use of media in the nineteenth-century.

The Democratization of American Christianity revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about Christianity in the early American Republic. This book is not about popular religion in the sense that it looks beyond men in leadership positions. But, it opens the way for other scholars to delve deeper into the everyday religious lives of men, women, and children who influenced popular Christianity in the early American republic (See Heyrman, Southern Cross). Hatch shifts the study of American religion from elite to popular religion in order to see major transformations in the practice and popularity of Christianity.

26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.


The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.


The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.

25 Mar

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Selection of her “Letters” (1805)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) converted to Catholicism in 1805. She founded the Sisters of American Charity and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975 by the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth grew-up in New York and joined the Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth helped establish The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and served as its treasurer. In 1803, Seton travelled with her husband, William Seton, and children to Italy. Early on the trip, William died. Elizabeth and her children stayed with William’s business partners who introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth returned to New York. For two years, Elizabeth contemplated converting to Catholicism, and faced ridicule and alienation from family and friends. Elizabeth also suffered financial hardships after the death of her husband. In 1804, she started a boarding school to support herself and her family. However, local Protestants refused to send their daughters to this school on hearing of Elizabeth’s bent toward Catholicism. Elizabeth’s letters record these struggles and her desire to become a Catholic. These letters include her correspondences with Catholics and non-Catholics, and correspondences on her behalf. Below I’ll highlight some of these letters.

Writing to Anthony Filicchi in January 1805, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore expressed his concern for Elizabeth. Bishop Carroll hoped that “after being put to the severe and most distressing trials of interior darkness, doubts, and terrors of making a wrong step, our merciful Father in heaven will soon send her relief, and diffuse light and consolation in her heart.”[1] Bishop Carroll also offered reading suggestions for Filicchi to pass along to Elizabeth. These included Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Following of Christ, particularly the ninth chapter of the second book “Of the wants or absence of every comfort.” Bishop Carroll also advised that Elizabeth should focus on asking God to “revive in her heart the grace of her baptism.”[2] He also urged her to listen to the voice of God if this meant painful sacrifices. Bishop Carroll hoped that Elizabeth’s current trials would make her stronger for the trials that would come after her conversion to Catholicism.

Elizabeth wrote to Philip Filicchi in January 1805 and described her doubts, anxieties, and troubles. In the summer of 1804, Elizabeth had been left alone by her family and A. Filicchi, her spiritual advisor. She engaged in prayer and read Protestant authors about the Prophesies. The authors argued that Catholicism was a temptation by Satan. For months, she struggled and doubted which version of Christianity was true. Elizabeth visited the Protestant church in her town, but often wished she were at Mass. She started reading a volume by the French Jesuit Priest Lois Bourdaloue. It encouraged her to read again the other books she had on Catholicism. She tried to visit the only Catholic Priest in New York, Mr. O’Brien, but to no avail. Elizabeth could not come to a decision about her faith. She ended the letter requesting to see A. Filicchi, Philip’s brother, when he returned to town.

Elizabeth also wrote to Amabilia Filicchi in January 1805 and expressed similar doubts and concerns. She described how she read Bourdaloue and tried to visit Mr. O’Brien. Nevertheless, she had doubts about converting. She could not decide if the Catholic Church in New York was a bad as people had described. Elizabeth resolved that these rumors would not hurt her faith and that the ministry of the sacraments would be enough to satisfy her yearnings for the Church. She argued, “I seek but God and His church, and expect to find my peace in them, not the people.”[3] Elizabeth described going to a Protestant church, St. George’s. She felt the need to go to church, but after going felt indifference to Protestantism and decided not to return. She realized that she had no faith in the prayers of the Bishop at St. George’s. After reading a book from Mr. Hobart she also realized that Protestant churches claimed no apostolic history. They had no connection to the True church of Christ. Communion at St. George’s also made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable because it was not given as the real presence of Christ. The Catholic Church represented a church steeped in apostolic authority, and linked to Christian history and beginnings. Elizabeth resolved, “For if the chief church became Antichrist’s [the Catholic Church], and the second holds her rights from it [the Protestant Church], then I should be afraid both might be antichristian, and I be lost by following either.”[4] Elizabeth waffled in her decision on which church to join. She wanted to have faith and to be a good Christian. But, she did not know if either of these were the right choice. Doubt plagued Elizabeth.

Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi again on March 14, 1805, and expressed her joyous conviction in choosing the Catholic Church. Elizabeth moved to Baltimore to be closer to a Catholic church. She expressed happiness in seeing the cross on top of the church instead of a weathercock. She also basked in the “great crucifixion” above the altar. Elizabeth also enjoyed the Irish priest’s talk of “death so familiarly that he delighted and revived me.”[5] Elizabeth made her profession of faith. She felt clearer in head than she had in months. Nevertheless, she begged “our Lord to bury deep my heart, in that wounded side so well depicted in the beautiful crucifixion, or lock it up in His little tabernacle where I shall rest forever.” Elizabeth gloried in talk of death, Christ’s suffering, and the material artifacts at this Catholic church. They evidenced a more real faith to her. Elizabeth notified Amabilia that she was preparing for her confession of faith and hoped that after it she would “begin a new life, a new existence itself.”[6] As Elizabeth continued in her preparation, she relayed feelings of satisfaction and freedom: “How awful those words of unloosing after a thirty years’ bondage!..How bright is the sun these morning walks to the church for preparation.” After years of struggling with her doubt, Elizabeth decided to become a Catholic.

[1] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, “Letters” in R. Marie Griffith, ed., American Religions: A Documentary History, 1 edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid.

20 Mar

Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women” (1990)

In “Onward Christian Women” Nina Baym examines Sarah J. Hale’s Woman’s Record (1853) to better understand Hale’s notion of the “woman’s sphere” and its implications for gender studies and women’s rights in nineteenth-century America. Woman’s Record was the “most fully expressive of [Hale’s] theory of womanhood.”[1] This work reconceived world and Christian history in terms of women’s history. Hale divided history into four eras that highlighted the biographies of over 1,600 women. This history conflated the progress of Christianity with the progress of women. The two were not separate because, according to Hale, the “Gospel harmonizes best with the feminine nature.”[2] Christianity supported the moral superiority and progress of women, especially mothers. God called Christian women as missionaries to lead the evangelization of the world and usher in the millennium.[3]

Baym maintains that by arguing with her contemporaries in Woman’s Record about notions of womanhood, “Hale brought a female polyvocality into the public arena, instituting—for all her talk of “woman”—not woman’s voice, but women’s voices, at the center of contemporary history….Instead of just speaking softly among themselves, women were invited to address each other in public, within earshot of men.”[4] Thus, Woman’s Record created a public space for women to express their voices. It opposed New Historicist and Foucauldian interpretations that antebellum women were “increasingly passive, compliant, and privatized consumers.”[5] Antebellum women, as expressed by Hale, were Christians, spiritually superior to men, diverse, different, and able to endure and adapt.


Contemporary Americans remember Hale (1788-1879) as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and as an advocate for the inauguration of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale also achieved widespread notoriety in nineteenth-century America for championing women’s education, women’s missionary activities, and the “woman’s sphere.” Scholars have examined Hale’s “woman’s sphere” with a critical eye. Some have seen Hale “as either a profound conservative or equally as a progressive liberal.”[6] More often, scholars have interpreted Hale as “a retrograde force, a woman who impeded the development of egalitarian feminism through her espousal of the ideology of separate spheres for the sexes and contributed to the weakening of an older, vigorously masculine cultural style through her successful championing of an alternative feminine (i.e., sentimental, consumerist) aesthetic sensibility” [See: Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture]. Since the 1960s, feminist scholars have interpreted Hale and women like her as opposing egalitarian feminism. Thus, most scholars have refused to recognize Hale as a feminist.

Baym essay is critical for re-reading Hale and recognizing that Hale would have considered herself a Christian feminist. Hale understood women as the morally superior agents of God who would usher in the millennium through their domestic and social work. Baym also recognizes the political role that Hale supported for women. In the introduction to the second edition of Woman’s Record (1855), Hale makes two points: “on the right influence of women depends the moral improvement of men; and that the condition of the female sex decides the destiny of the nation.”[7] Elsewhere, Baym notes Hale’s intervention into the political sphere in her discussions of “woman’s sphere.” Hale recognizes the Anglo-Saxons as the exemplars of moral development, and, further, she elevates the United States over Britain as the leading Anglo-Saxon nation. In doing so, Baym argues that Hale “demolishes, inadvertently but irreparably, the very boundaries between the male political and material sphere and the female spiritual and moral sphere on which her argument has depended….Hale cannot ultimately avoid becoming conventionally political. And her politics are conventional: Anglo-Saxonist, expansionist, nationalist.”[8] In other words, Hale promotes political roles and responsibilities for women.

Baym insights are crucial: nineteenth-century American women recognized that they had religious, social, and political roles in the Republic. Other scholars have recognized one of these elements, but left others out. Barbara Welter recognized the religious, but not the social or political aspects. Linda Kerber recognized the political , social, and moral aspects. But these moral aspects had very little, if anything at all, to do with religion, particularly Protestantism. Baym recognizes the religious, social, and political aspects. Nonetheless, Baym interprets Hale’s support of politics as an inadvertent dismantling of the woman’s sphere. This interpretation misses the points of Hale’s argument.

Hale fully intended and recognized that women could and should influence the political sphere. But, the way that nineteenth-century women defined the political sphere is not the way that twenty- and twenty-first century American define the political sphere. The political sphere in the nineteenth-century was a public sphere, but it was defined in more narrowly institutional forms. Hale recognized that women should not vote, work in industry and mechanics, lecture to men, or hold public office. But, this did not mean that women could not influence the political sphere through their writing and religious efforts. The woman’s sphere was a literal construction for women like Hale. But, Hale never defined this sphere as purely private and purely domestic. For Hale, the woman’s sphere included any space where Christian women needed to act, except for narrowly defined political spaces. Hale did not have a problem commenting on the moral implications of slavery. And, she hoped that her commentary would influence politics and politicians. She did not think, however, that women should vote about slavery in the states because this was a decidedly political act.

To better understand how women like Hale used and defined “woman’s sphere,” scholars must rethink how this term was defined in the nineteenth-century and how it was related to religion, politics, and women’s moral influence on the world. Nineteenth-century American defined religion and politics in very specific ways because they did not want the states or Federal government to support an official religion. The legacy of disestablishment complicated how religion and politics were defined in the woman’s sphere. Moral influence on the world was not apolitical in the nineteenth-century. Contemporary scholars recognize it as apolitical because our contemporary moment recognizes the separation of religion and politics, and defines political action in very specific ways.

[1] Nina Baym, “Onward Christian Women: Sarah J. Hale’s History of the World,” The New England Quarterly 63, no. 2 (June 1, 1990): 251.

[2] Quoted in ibid., 255.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Ibid., 268.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Ibid., 249.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 261.

19 Mar

Sarah J. Hale, “The Ladies Mentor,” Godey’s Ladies’ Book (November 1837)

Sarah J. Hale recognized the influence of the printing press on women’s roles in the world and in Christianity:

“The invention of printing was a blessed era for woman. The multiplication of books has, in some degree, destroyed that monopoly of knowledge which men would engross, while learning was confined to manuscripts and the schools. As soon as books were accessible, the female mind received a new impulse, and the beneficial tendency of her awakened intellect, in refining and purifying the taste and character of men no one can doubt, who will read the writings of the old divines, even of the reformers themselves, and, compare these with the moral refinement which now pervades literature, secular as well as religious.”

18 Mar

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment investigates “popular religion” in seventeenth-century New England. Popular religion recognizes how religion “was embedded in the fabric of everyday life” of lay men and women.[1] Hall argues that popular religion in New England encompassed the clergy as well as laypeople, strict “Puritans” and “horse-shed Christians,” and theology as well as literacy, magic, the meetinghouse, and rituals. Religion in seventeenth-century New England “was a loosely bounded set of symbols and motifs that gave significance to rites of passage and life crises, that infused everyday events with the presence of the supernatural.”[2] The people of New England experienced religion as “a set of practices and situations that offered choice, that remained open-ended.” [3] The diary of Samuel Sewall, a prominent merchant and magistrate from Boston, illustrates the open-ended interpretation of religion experienced by seventeenth-century New Englanders.


Literacy and the interchangeability of print and oral media “were deeply consequential for popular religion.”[4] The people of seventeenth-century New England were highly literate people who revered the Bible as a commodity, a book, a talisman, and the Word of God. They read religious books, pamphlets, testimonials, and printed sermons. Protestant truths were directly accessible from these printed forms which embodied the Word. Yet, spoken sermons “were as sacred as the printed page” and hearing was like reading.[5] People listened to and annotated sermons which they read afterwards, and read printed sermons purchased from printers. The Word infused spoken and written words so that it conveyed truth in an interchangeable form to listeners and readers. This ideology of truth informed other printed materials that New Englanders read, which included almanacs, dirty books, fiction, tales of wonder, and witchcraft. People put the storylines of theology and popular print to work in popular religion. The “ways they viewed the world were sustained by print culture, and in turning to the books that circulated widely we encounter structure of belief, or as I prefer to say, the stories that lay people knew and used to understand the world.” [6] The market place and print media provided people with alternatives to strict New England Puritanism.

These alternatives emerged in the form of “wonders,” or ghosts, the Devil, trumpets, and the presence of the supernatural. A wonder “was any event people perceived as disrupting the normal order of things—a deformity of nature such as a ‘monster birth,’ a storm or devastating fire. Always, wonders evidenced the will of God.”[7] New Englanders, laypeople and clergy, wrote of these wonders in terms of the meteorology of Greeks and Romans, astrology, apocalyptic prophecy, magic, and natural history. They used wonders to explain the world around them, current events, and to oppose religious and political adversaries. While clergy imposed their own interpretations on some wonders, the sheer abundance of wonders ensured that the “process of interpretation remained open-ended” for laypeople.[8]

The meetinghouse functioned as a site for open-ended religious interpretation. In theory, the meeting house marked sacred space and set the godly community apart. It was a place for conversion testimonies, baptisms, communion, the elect’s governance, and sermons. But, laypeople struggled to meet the ideals of these activities in the meeting house. Many New Englanders never “found the confidence to testify about the work of grace.”[9] As a decrease in testimonials led to crises in membership, clergy called for the Halfway Covenant (1662). Adult non-members were allowed to baptize children to increase the church community. Many parents baptized their children to save them from damnation in case of infant death, not necessarily to tie themselves or their children to the community. Some people, uncertain of their election, refused communion for fear of the clergy’s promises that uncertain members would be punished if they partook in communion.

New Englanders also experienced open-ended religious interpretation in the rituals that occurred outside of church. Rituals of repentance and renewal took place in courts with criminal trials and witch-hunts, at home with deaths, prayers, fasting, and thanksgiving days, and in public places at executions and meetinghouses. A ritual “was a formalized procedure, a patterned means of connecting the natural and the social worlds to supernatural power.”[10] Ritual was a means of seeking order in the natural world by organizing life events and crises.


Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is one of the most significant books in American religious history. Hall applied the notion of “popular religion” (or lived religion) from studies of religion and society in early modern Europe to American religious history. Prior to Hall’s work, Perry Miller’s The New England Mind stood as the most influential work on Puritans in America. Miller presented an intellectual history of Puritanism that focused on the theology and philosophy of the clergy. He argued that Puritanism fostered an intellectual legacy still present in 1939. Hall’s work departs from intellectual histories of Puritans. It looks, instead, to the lay practices at the meetinghouse and in everyday life. Hall refused to represent “the clergy as so dominating the churches that their way of thinking always prevailed.”[11] He also refused to write a history of Puritans. The term “Puritan” assumes “that the people of New England exemplified a total or perfect faith. I want to affirm the legitimacy of horse-shed Christians as well as the legitimacy of stricter patterns of behavior.”[12] Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment presents the ways laypeople agreed and disagreed with clergy. Popular religion “happened in conjunction with much sharing, and with a subtle process of selection between choices that the clergy helped initiate.”[13] Hall’s work moves the study of American religion away from intellectual histories to studies of lived religion. It also takes seriously the place of the occult and magic in religion. It also tried to move the study of Puritanism to the study of Christianity in New England. While the latter was an admirable task, “Puritans” and “Puritanism” remain dominant categories in studies that trace American evangelicalism to New England Puritanism.

This book also revolutionizes how scholars should think about the relationship between the marketplace and media. Hall saw both of these as foundational to New England religion. Printed materials sustained popular religion by circulating material that people used to make sense of their world. Moreover, Hall argued that these printed materials worked differently in New England epistemology. Printed materials and the spoken Word were interchangeable to such a degree that the spoken Word recorded in print form relayed the same concept of truth as the spoken Word. Although Hall did not go so far as to argue it, his notion of interchangeability has significant implications for understanding how New Englanders interpreted conversion testimonies, deathbed scenes, and witchcraft trail proceedings that were transformed into print. For example, oral conversion testimonies revealed the working of God on a human soul. When pastors translated and published these testimonies, the printed form was supposed to relay the same truth that the oral testimony had. Readers were to hear and see the testimony and the testifier through the printed word. The same is true of deathbed narratives. Dying New Englanders provided conversion testimonies at their deathbeds. Many of these testimonies were published for individual consumption. Readers were supposed to see the deathbed, hear the deathbed testimony, and see the manifestation of Christ that the dying saw. The printed word allowed readers to experience and see truth as if they had witnessed the testimony firsthand. Few scholars have taken Hall’s suggestion to its logical end (that printed testimonies and images revealed Truth; they were eyewitness accounts), except Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. Moreover, few scholars have recognized the degree to which Hall suggested that media, the marketplace, and culture influenced religion.

While Hall provides many insights for the study of American religion, he may have over-emphasized the open-endedness of New England religion and the power of laypeople to select their own interpretations. New Englanders’ certainly had some agency, but they were also constrained by social, religious, and cultural norms. For examples, people certainly had the power to choose what they read. But, not all people had the ability to access certain books. Some books were too expensive, some not available, and some were deemed too foul. The market place dictated what people could read and when. In this sense, the marketplace exudes a much more powerful force on religion and laypeople than Hall suggests. The constraints of laypersons also comes across in the strict gender roles that New Englanders adhered to. Women and children may have had less of an opportunity for the interpretation of religion than Hall suggests. For example, the clergy coaxed particular knowledge and experience from women who gave conversion testimonies. Many women’s narratives ended in a sense of doubt and uncertainty that many male testimonies did not. The coaxing allowed clergy to frame women’s narratives in a style that they, not the women, deemed appropriate. Nevertheless, Hall’s book remains instrumental for its emphasis on popular religion, and the relationships between religion, magic, media, and the marketplace.

[1] David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 3.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71–72.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 168.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 11.